Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 309: A Week Without News

Journalists dread that thing called a slow news day. It means nothing important’s going on, but we still have airtime or pages to fill, so we better find something.

This week we had millions rioting and threatening to topple governments in Thailand and the Ukraine. President Obama took up the problem of government spying. Prime Minister Harper made some big speeches in Israel.

But little of that seemed to fall into the category of “News”. Over at MSNBC, they literally cut off an important interview on the changes to the NSA so as not to miss Justin Bieber appearing in court on a DUI.

You can see that stark revelation of network priorities here.

It was one of those moments when you realized that the people broadcasting the news really have no idea of what’s important anymore.

And there isn’t a better example of that across all news services in the US and Canada than the “firestorm of controversy” created last Sunday by a Seattle Seahawks player for ten seconds of trash-talking after a hard won game.

The clip ran repeatedly, followed by panels debating everything from the decline of sportsmanship or civility to whether reacting to the video made you a racist.

For anybody who has actually watched a football game, those ten seconds were:

1) Some guy high on adrenaline blowing off steam (if you were a fan of his team).


2) Some guy talking out his ass (if you were not a fan of his team).

Either way something worthy of immediate dismissal.

But no. Those ten seconds had to be parsed, explored and revisited endlessly. It was as if a Seattle Seahawk had replaced the sacrificial dove of a Roman Oracle so our Media could study its entrails.

Let’s hope no Journalists catch the following on their next slow news day or things could get seriously out of hand.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Where Creative People Come From

I never received any formal education as a writer. Just worked hard at learning the craft. As much as anybody, the traditional quip about writers applies to me – “By the time I realized I couldn’t write I was making too much money to quit”.

I think my story applies to a lot of creative people. I’ve seen gym rats who’ve never taken an acting lesson become movie stars. Had friends who ached to play an instrument well eventually turn out a hit record. Hired directors with only a short film that showed promise under their belts.

That’s not to say you can’t learn a ton in theatre school, the Creative Writing department of a university or any Film Institute.

But the slip of paper that comes from any of those places is no measure of either your skill or your creative genius.

So where do the truly creative people really come from?

There’s a lot of food for thought on this from American blogger Matt Walsh. The post I’m linking to deals more with the current student loan crisis in the US. But the points he makes are equally valid in the creative industries.

Well worth the read -– here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Six Minute Commercial

I’ve been laid out with a cold for the last few days. And as usually happens when I get sick, things go badly for Canadian television.

That’s because I don’t normally watch much Canadian TV. Oh, I give every show a shot. But most don’t make the ongoing viewer cut.

That’s got nothing to do with quality, artistry or aesthetics. Some of it can be chalked up to “seen it before” or “done it”. Mostly, my weekly TV allotment seldom gets into hourly double digits. Debut new series like “True Detective” and “Black Sails”. Add the NFL playoffs, and I’m at my limit. 

But when I get sick I spend more time watching TV and thus more time on Canadian channels. And I’m inevitably unsettled by that.

Despite some break-through series and all the news of chock full development slates, I’m more worried than ever about our future.

We don’t yet know what impact the massive Rogers hockey deal will have on the drama on all the channels they’ve begun setting aside to run games.

We don’t yet know if the CBC executive shake-up will mean brave new era of Cancon or more seasons of wait-and-see as they get up to speed.

Mostly, we don’t know what the fallout will be from unbundling.

And the Canadian TV I watched between sniffles and sneezes got me very concerned about that in particular.

Recently, I compared the ratings for the new seasons of “Duck Dynasty” and “Girls” searching, as every producer searches, for a hint of insight into future audience trends. It’s a mug’s game with too many moving parts to ever achieve any certainty, yet it’s one of the few yardsticks we have.

But ratings in Canada, especially on our specialty channels, aren’t anywhere near the content driver and determiner they are in the real world.

Most of the specialties rely far more on subscriber fees than sponsor payments to stay in the black. And while they all kick in cash for their own series, much of their shows’ budgets and the bulk of development is paid for via cable company contributions.

Therefore, they are far less dependent than those in a non-subsidized world on commercial revenue to survive.

But with cable subscriptions declining overall and the reality that, given the unbundling option, most viewers will unburden themselves of channels they don’t watch; one has to ask how much their profit overall will decline and therefore how the programs we make will pay for themselves.

Maybe Space, Showcase or others will just jack up their subscription rates, opt for greater product placement or make more foreign sales to keep delivering their signature shows.

Perhaps advertisers will happily pay more for a dedicated demographic than the overall penetration a particular channel now offers.

But what I noticed about current commercial breaks is that, invariably, half of what was advertised was other fare on the same network.

Good for them for keeping their audience informed. But half? Of almost every break?

Does that mean they can’t even sell ads for their shows –- or they aren’t bothering to try because they’ve got the monthly churn from the subscriber base, most of whom never tune in to anything on the channel.

For these broadcasters and our series and films to survive, we’ll need to make commercial time into a major money earner.

And that might mean using those breaks differently from the way they are used now.

After a couple of hours of repeated exposure to that horrific McDonald’s What-what-wha…? commercial, I wasn’t sure if I should blow my nose again or just blow my brains out.

Once or twice an hour, an audience might pay attention to the same commercial. But after they’ve seen it 2400 times any positive messaging has been turned into unacceptable hate speech.

On one hand, it’s audience abuse. And on the other, it encourages tuning somewhere else.

That got me wondering if 30 and 15 second commercials have run their course. Time was, one minute commercials were the norm. Then advertisers began chasing an ever shortening audience attention span. A span likely shortened by being continually bombarded by unappealing messages.

Back when I was a kid, it wasn’t unusual for an entire commercial break to be taken up by a single commercial. Somebody might take you through the entire Tide wash cycle or explain how all those fancy buttons on the dash of your new Rambler were used.

Entertaining and informative and seldom if ever repeated.

Maybe that’s what we have to do. Fill the commercial time with content as equally attractive and absorbing as the programming which surrounds it.

But who’s going to watch a commercial that long, you might ask. And who’s going to commit to that level of creativity to sell cheeseburgers or shaving cream?

Well, they do it every year when the Superbowl rolls around. And now ad agencies in other parts of the world are giving the idea a shot for less special occasions.  That’s partly because they realize the “sameness” that typifies Canadian TV ads is an enemy of branding and the main reason audiences channel surf during the show breaks.

What follows is a six minute commercial for blue jeans. Ask yourself not only how many people would stick around for all of it, but how much its presence might force show makers to pick up their own game a couple of notches.

We aren’t going to be allowed to go on the way we’ve been going. The money just won’t be there. So we better start thinking outside the 15 and 30 second boxes in order to generate some.

Monday, January 20, 2014

I’m Hooked

For whatever reason, mostly football I imagine, I PVR’d last week’s premiere of HBO’s “True Detective” and watched it with Episode 2 last night.


The Golden Age of Television just moved on to Platinum.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 308: The Forgotten Audience

Some time ago, I was invited to a Writers Guild strategy session on some presentation being made to the Canadian TV regulator, the CRTC, regarding some consideration they were making that might increase or decrease the presence of scripted drama on the dial.

We made a list of the players who would be arguing to better their situations just as we were seeking to better the situation of writers.

One group appeared missing from the list of those who would be impacted, and I asked, “What about the audience?”.

Everybody looked at me like I had two heads. Which you’d think they’d have gotten used to by now, but anyway –- it was another reminder of how little the people we make stuff for are considered by most of the makers when we make the stuff.

I was reminded of the same thing this week as I watched interviews with various filmmakers being streamed, blogged and broadcast from the Sundance Film Festival.

I was struck by not only how few filmmakers were able to articulate what their film was about but how many still hoped it would be picked up to offer “the full theatrical experience” rather than end up on TV, DVD or Netflix.

Somehow the audience accessing your work in perhaps the only way they might was secondary to getting those viewers crowded together in the multiplex.

And to be sure, the experience of seeing a film in a communal atmosphere is exceptional. Except that such an atmosphere is getting harder to find –- as are films that can’t equally be appreciated on a 42” Sony or an iPad.

Recently, a reviewer for the NY Times bemoaned how much indie “crap” she had to wade through every year, most of it completely unworthy of a theatrical release.

While her basic concern was how this situation will affect the growth and maturation of future filmmakers, the effect all these crummy movies was having on the audience was virtually ignored.

Any among us who make or love Canadian films know how hard it is to drag friends and neighbors to see them –- and how much harder that becomes after we drag them to see a bad one.

It’s not unlike how hard it used to be for Canadian wineries to get anyone to drink from a bottle that didn’t have a duck on it.

Audiences, more than we admit, are susceptible to the “once bitten, twice shy” syndrome. And from my perspective it’s not the Indie filmmakers who are biting them hardest. A lot of those people are still trying to figure out what they’re trying to say and how to say it.

On the other hand, Hollywood seems to be actively agitating to rid itself of the theatrical model. For a few months each Fall, a flurry of challenging or unique films get released. The rest of the time, we’re subjected to an endless repetition of comic book character, sequel or genre re-boot or re-tread of the week.

And even when something “new” feels upon us, the cynical, jaundiced nature of Hollywood dealmakers seems to take precedent.

Last year, fans of “The Hobbit” were surprised to learn that a beloved but frankly pretty thin story would be released not as one film but three.

A few months ago we learned that the reason wasn’t that a spectacular single film couldn’t have satisfied the fans. But that by releasing a Part Two and a Part Three, the studio would sever the producer who had developed the project from future profits because he didn’t own the sequel rights and those two releases are technically and contractually sequels.

Now this will all get settled in court to the benefit of one bunch of suits or another. But it doesn’t heal the disappointment felt by those leaving a theatre unfulfilled or those inspired to read the book (rather than wait two years to learn how it ends) and discover huge chunks of the film aren’t even in it.

However we deal with each other in this business, or how much we want our own vision to succeed, we need to be reminded that the audience is what allows us to keep working and they deserve to be treated with far more respect and perhaps a little honesty.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The World’s Juiciest Film Festival


Most of you probably know Bill Marshall as the founder of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the largest public film festival in the world. But he was and is so much more than that.

I was fortunate enough to have a film in the first festival in 1976 and a couple of years later was hired by Bill with three other writers to script a mini-series he was doing with the CBC.

Bill had become an established producer by then, with successful Canadian features like “Outrageous”, “Felicity” and “Wild Horse Hank” under his belt. He was an outgoing, ebullient and tenacious guy who never took “No” for an answer and simply went out and “got shit done”.

For reasons to complicated to explain, the proposed mini-series eventually collapsed under a combination of broadcaster, studio and guild acrimony and I headed off to Hollywood to seek my fortune there.

Barely a week later, at my first ever glittering party in the Hollywood hills, I flopped down on a couch with a glass of wine and found myself almost in the lap of Bill Marshall, who said…

“Geez, Henshaw! We can’t be seen together. We’re suing each other.” At which point we both cracked up.

The great thing about Bill in those days was he was exactly the sort of character the Canadian film industry desperately needed. A guy who understood how things needed to be seen to be done in an overly cautious and closely regulated nation –- and yet knew how the real world worked so they could actually get done.

He was one of my producer mentors long before I’d ever contemplated producing anything and he not only taught me a ton, but contributed to some of the defining moments of my life.

Much has been written about the earth-shaking argument he got into with Mordecai Richler on a TIFF panel about Canadian culture. The press, as usual, mostly took Richler’s side in reporting it. But everybody who was in that room, including me, knew that Bill had won and a lot of the ugly truths about how culture is made and supported in this country were laid bare.

Bill went on to lead TIFF to greater heights than its humble beginnings predicted and he had a successful producing career with more than 20 feature films to his credit.

And now he’s doing something else that’s special.

The Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF).

Niff launches this June in Ontario’s lush wine country along the Niagara escarpment, combining good films with good wine and good food.

But instead of hunkering down in the local multiplex with a box of popcorn, NIFF patrons will attend screenings at local wineries, accompanied by the product of local grapes and locally sourced food prepared by renowned chefs.

In a way, it’s all about making film integral to the life of the country instead of putting it behind a velvet rope.

Among the films confirmed so far are the Russell Crowe fronted documentary on the wine industry “Red Obsession” and the acclaimed “More Than Honey” .

There will also be a retrospective of newly restored silent films starring Canada’s first movie star and America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford, supported musically by a live orchestra.

There will be a special program of “unusual” fare selected by TIFF’s inimitable “Midnight Madness” programmer Colin Geddes. And a program of short films direct from their Cannes Festival screenings will be supplied by Cannes programmer Danny Lennon.

On top of that, if you’re an aspiring filmmaker with a 1-5 minute film shot on a mobile device and related to the subject of water –- there’s a contest you can enter.

To kickstart all this, Bill and his partners have launched a campaign on Indie-go-go to raise the money that will get them matching funds to bring NIFF to life. And the perks are great!

For as little as $9 you can buy a ticket to one of the festival films.

For $250, you can sit down and have a beer with Bill, something everybody who claims to love Canadian film should do at least once in their life.

And for $500 upward you can purchase various versions of the all-access passes that originally allowed TIFF to achieve its special place in the hearts of Torontonians.

You can find out more about NIFF, its films, vineyard venues and more here.

Please show your support and give back to a great man who has already given the Canadian film industry so much.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Best Commercial Ever

Getting a cup of coffee at Tim Horton’s in the morning is virtually a national addiction in Canada. And a lot of people from elsewhere wonder both where that daily commitment comes from and why it doesn’t ever seem to wane.

Well, a lot of it has to do with how thoroughly Tim Horton’s understands their customers.

This is their latest commercial. And among its many messages, there’s one people from those other countries need to be clear about.

If you’re going to Sochi for the Winter Olympics, you better be satisfied taking home Silver or Bronze.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 307: A Girl From Paradise

While the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, girls were forbidden to attend school and the freedoms of adult women were severely restricted.

Those who engaged in activities that wouldn’t even cross the minds of most Westerners as problematic, such as leaving their homes without an escort from a male member of their family or even having a job were severely punished.

Rape and crimes of domestic violence were ignored by Afghan courts. Women could not be examined by male doctors or even have surgery if there was a man on the operating team. They were not allowed to play sports, not allowed to sing and could be beaten for merely being overheard in a public place.

There’s been a lot made of how the NATO occupation of Afghanistan has changed all that. But with Canadian troops leaving the country in a couple of months and other European and American forces soon to follow, few believe the gains made for women and girls will last.

Meanwhile, the influence of the Taliban has spread next door in Pakistan, where in October of 2012, twelve year old Malala Yousafzai was shot by Taliban gunmen who had simply asserted her right to have an education.

Malala survived the attack, becoming an international celebrity and the youngest nominee for a Nobel prize as she continued to press for the right of girls in Pakistan to go to school.

But the groundswell of support she sparked around the world has made no difference in the Swat Valley of Pakistan that had been her home, a home to which she cannot return.

Victoria, BC, filmmaker Mohsin Abbas has just completed a film about Malala’s life and work entitled “A Girl From Paradise”, a shoot that took him into the Swat Valley and face-to-face with the Taliban. And the film he shot does not paint a pretty picture of the future that lies in store for girls like Malala.

More than 400 schools have been burned down by the Taliban and none have been rebuilt. More than 27 Million kids are no longer even going to school in Pakistan and 7 million of primary school age have never spent a single day in one.

Meanwhile, the Taliban leader who ordered Malala’s execution, Mullah Fazullah, has been elevated to the extremist group’s top job, his attack on a little girl fuelling rather than short-circuiting his rise to power.

Normally, I’d be linking you to where you might be able to see Mohsin Abbas’ film. But it’s a Canadian documentary, meaning that despite its power and currency it’s struggling to reach an audience.

Yeah, you might eventually see it at a local film festival or late night broadcast on a cable channel. But it deserves, as do so many Canadian docs, a better fate.

Does it strike anybody besides me as troubling that we have corporate entities willing to put their names on sparkling film venues like the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver or Toronto’s Bell Lightbox, where patrons can sip Lattes and gawk at movie memorabilia; but there’s little if any money from the same wealthy corporations to support the films those venues were supposedly built to serve.

Meanwhile, the government agencies that continue to pretend they’re supporting the Canadian film industry have failed to build a distribution and exhibition infrastructure to get the work of Canadian filmmakers to the people who paid for them on any kind of consistent or regular basis.

If you think it’s hard to find a Canadian film in theatres, start looking for one from a particular genre, even genres as wide-ranging as family films and especially documentaries.

“A Girl From Paradise” is a film that needs to be seen. Just as we as a country need to start asking whether the blood and treasure we’ve spent in that part of the world, much of it better the lives of girls and women, will be allowed to go to waste.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Stratton Oakmont Is America

There’s a story told about the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Caught up in the anti-Communist crusade that swept Hollywood in the 1950’s, he was interrogated by Congressional investigators intent on making an example of him.

One after another, they quoted dialogue from his plays, asking why he’d said such things. Time after time, Brecht denied the quotes were his.

Finally, in frustration, copies of his plays were dumped in front of him, his interrogators angrily pointing out that his name appeared on all of them as the author. How could he deny his own words?

Brecht’s response was simple. “Those are not my words. The characters in my plays, they said them.”

Such is the prerogative of a dramatist. To challenge us to see through different eyes. To compare our morals and ethics and the ever-shifting ones of our society with those of his protagonist. To have us leave the theatre comfortable in the knowledge that order has been restored –- or unsettled by the suggestion that it has not.

In 1973, I sat in a drafty theatre in Manhattan watching a movie called “Mean Streets”. I thought most of the characters were idiots. Guys too stupid or too trapped by their culture to escape their inevitable fate. But I never ascribed who they were to the character of their creator, Martin Scorsese.

17 years later, when he made another film about the same neighborhood, “Goodfellas”, I saw him exploring why gangsterism was glorified, not glorifying it.

These people rape and murder and yet you find them funny. They amuse you. How come?

When he looked a century further back to their roots in “Gangs of New York”, or to how they had metastasized in “Casino”, I didn’t see a guy stuck in a Hollywood genre rut, I sensed an artist connecting the same human failings over time and distance, asking why these people continued to fascinate rather than appal us.

When he made “The Temptation of Christ”, I didn’t picket the theatre for questioning my faith because I saw the humanity in the questioning. Likewise “Kundun” didn’t make me think he was shilling for Buddhism. Instead I respected how he connected foreign spiritual beliefs to my own.

So why the outrage and condemnation over “The Wolf of Wall Street”? For me the answer is not that Martin Scorsese finally gave in to the depravity and fleshly excess he has long explored. It’s not he that changed nor his audience.

What’s changed is America. Or rather that portion of America that doesn’t want to admit that America has become Stratton Oakmont.

For those who have seen the film or know the story on which it is based, Stratton Oakmont is the Investment house created by the movie’s titular wolf, fraudster Jordan Belfort.

Stratton Oakmont is a place where the American dream is perverted by those who use it to feed their own addictions by selling its promise to those who still believe it can be achieved.

It is a place where hard work and decency are ranked far below doing unto others before they can do unto you. And doing it hard.

Before the film’s release, all kinds of people passionately questioned the morality of Scorsese making a film about somebody who had bilked so many out of their life savings, their homes and their businesses.

Oddly, none of these people had put a fraction of that passion into questioning their own government on why so many of Wall Street’s Jason Balforts were still walking around free, not only not brought to justice but still plying their trade and continuing to skim vast fortunes off a struggling economy.

They held up statements from Belfort’s own daughter, documenting how her father’s crimes had destroyed his own children. But they never asked why the billions in fines paid by Bank of America and JP Morgan were going into government coffers instead of back to the people they fleeced.

Unlike his critics, Scorsese knows that America has changed. That its values are no longer the values of those who believe in hard work, who try to build something or make lives better.

He understands that America’s banks and brokers are its latest iteration of the Wise Guy mentality, a mentality that says only morons and squares play by the rules.

Partway through the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort, unable to curb his self-destructive excesses and equally unable to evade the FBI agents closing in on him bemoans not his situation but the tenacity and dedication of his pursuers, wondering aloud why they don’t understand that “Stratton Oakmont is America”. 

If stating the film’s premise that broadly isn’t enough, the final moments are filled with images that make it clear to all but the most dense that the American dream is no longer achievable for those who will not break some law, compromise some ethic or step beyond whatever moral lines they have drawn in the sand.

But then…

If that message were to reach a wider audience…

Perhaps something would change.

Maybe people would actually have to get out of their comfortable movie seats and do something other than bitch about how a famous director and movie star have forgotten the true victims here –- as if any of them have given those poor bastards more than a passing thought over the last few decades.

Maybe some would have to question their own obsession with hookers and blow or with envying the lives of the Kardashians or the “Real Housewives of Vancouver”.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a masterfully made film featuring bravura performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. It’s a ferocious tour de force on every cinematic level.

More than anything else Scorsese has made, it takes you to the heart of what corruption is all about, following a couple of affable, good-hearted schmucks who have totally bought into the American dream, see the dream turn and realize the only difference between predators and prey is that the prey don’t yet know the dream is a lie.

It’s the ultimate Insider trade.

And a betrayal big enough to drive even the strongest predator into trying to erase everything that is decent, innocent and prey like from his being.

Everything we’ve come to expect from Scorsese is here. From the shots you thought were impossible to music placed so the song will forever have a new meaning, to those fraught set pieces that go agonizingly on and on yet you never want to end.

In that category, what I’ll call the “Qualude Nightmare” sequence here is as perfect as film-making gets.

This is not a film that glorifies criminals, makes light of their crimes or ignores their victims. Instead it reveals how easily we are corrupted, how facilely we justify our indiscretions and how blind we become to what’s inevitably hurtling toward us.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a powerful and provocative film that needs to be seen and experienced. Tut-tutting the audience into staying away only keeps them blissfully ignorant of how their world has changed and makes them easy pickings for the next Jordan Belfort.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Lazy Sunday #306: The Future Is Electric

We ended 2013 with a Lazy Sunday blog about a new sport. So it seems fitting that we begin 2014 the same way.

I’ve long been a fan of speed and fast cars. And anyone who has attended a major Formula 1, Indy or NASCAR race can tell you, the thrill is indescribable. The power of all those engines throttling up and accelerating at break-neck speed is such that the earth literally moves.

But we all know the era of the internal combustion engine is coming to a close. They’re dirty, noisy and dependent on technologies that do more damage to the planet than we can not only logically but morally continue.

The future of racing requires new heroes and ways of generating excitement. And that is arriving in 2014 as Formula-E racing.

Formula E is a new FIA Championship for fully-electric Formula racing cars. It will feature an initial group of ten teams, including such well known racing names as Andretti, Venturi, Audi and Renault) racing on street circuits all across the world.

The debut race will be held in Beijing in September, followed by nine more through the streets of Rio De Janeiro, London, Los Angeles, Monte Carlo and more.

And those imagining a more sedate and commuter friendly version of F-1 are in for a surprise. The average Formula 1 car accelerates from 0-60 in 2.7 seconds. Some Formula E models achieve that speed a full second faster.

These cars also come out of turns quicker, brake in shorter distances, with less loss of speed and perhaps most important strategically –- never have to pit for fuel.

Yes, the roar of the engines is gone. But it has been replaced by the pollution free, high-pitched whine of a passing fighter jet.

You can find out more about Formula E here.

And you can sample what’s in store in the videos below.

2014’s future is electric.

Enjoy your Sunday.

And here’s a little primer on how these cars work.